It was a bit like coming home again to find a beloved wisteria in full bloom and a soft, favorite bathrobe waiting in the closet—this return to Palm Beach after an almost 20-year absence. Best of all, the 16-mile barrier island was pretty much as we remembered it: newly minted, pristine and still boasting its extraordinary beauty and small-town character.
Incorporated in 1911, Palm Beach began in large part thanks to Henry Flagler, founder of Standard Oil and owner of the Florida East Coast Railway. He and other beneficiaries of the Gilded Age started buying up acres of land and had the foresight to plan exceedingly well, thereby maintaining the green space and integrity of powder-white beaches. This brought about the graceful evolution of the island, so apparent more than 100 years later.
The Chesterfield hotel, a registered historical landmark property, epitomizes the small-town friendliness of Palm Beach. Located in the heart of the palm-lined, bouigainvillea-festooned residential area, it is within walking distance of the beach, restaurants and Worth Avenue. Many of the rooms have recently been redone, but—much to our delight—ours was quintessential 1950s Palm Beach with lovely prints lining the walls, painted white furniture, and 20—yes 20—needlepoint pillows in which to sink, as well as homemade chocolate-chip cookies delivered nightly. The newly renovated Leopard Lounge is one of the most spectacular bars and dining spots we’ve ever seen, and with award-winning cuisine and live music nightly, it is simply perfection.
Top restaurants include Cucina Dell Arte, a happening night spot at ‘The Bar;’ Nick & Johnnie’s, for local music and seafood; HMF at The Breakers for high-style decadence and Gilded Age cocktails; Echo, for acclaimed Asian cuisine; Café via Flora, for great food in a romantic setting; The Palm Beach Grill, for classy American dining; and the bistro Ta-boo, where, since 1941, it’s served as a haven for celebrities, sugar daddies and facelifts gone amok.
Sights to take in on the island are Whitehall, the Flagler Museum; The Society of the Four Arts with its lovely gardens; Bethesda By-The-Sea, the beautiful Episcopalian church; Palm Beach Par 3 Golf Course, with the Atlantic on one side and intra-coastal on the other; the Royal Poinciana Playhouse; The Breakers resort; and Club Mar-A-Lago, once the ‘humble abode’ of the likes of Marjorie Merriweather and Donald Trump.
If you feel the urge to leave the island for a while, you can experience the modern version of a Gilded Age shopping center at The Gardens Mall featuring 1.4 million square feet of specialty shops. Also off the island is Wellington, home of the International Polo Club of Palm Beach, a world-class venue for the exciting sport of kings. Drop-dead gorgeous polo players on sleek polo ponies remain one of the best reasons to go west over the bridge.
As for the ultimate in high-end shopping, not even Wordsworth could capture the rapture of shopping on Worth Avenue. Conspicuous consumption is alive and well here, but don’t let the price tags scare you away from window-shopping. Marvel over the emeralds and diamonds sparkling in the windows of Graff or Patti Esbia, play Cinderella and slip into a pair of classic Stubbs & Wootton slippers, or wander into Taglialatella Galleries and take in the diamond dust art work of Russell Young. For a dose of reality, check out the stylish and gently used garments discarded by Palm Beach socialites at The Church Mouse…how reassuring to know that some things never really change.